04/18/2007 11:00PM

Small town sends big message

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It would be easy to assume that the results of the special municipal election held Tuesday in the Northern California town of Dixon represented a rejection of the sport of horse racing, placing it in roughly the same category as a toxic waste dump or a halfway house for crack addicts. Not in our back yard, pal.

With a 65 percent turnout of the 7,466 registered voters, Dixon residents turned down the four ballot measures that would have given the green light to the development of Magna Entertainment Corp.'s proposed Dixon Downs racetrack complex in the northeast part of town. The measures lost by vote margins of 328, 284, 275, and 290. All four needed to pass to build the track.

The Dixon vote comes on the heels of the decision by Bay Meadows Racetrack in San Mateo to close its doors after the 2007 fall meeting rather than comply with the broadly supported California Horse Racing Board ruling that all tracks running major meets be required to install synthetic surfaces.

Understandably, the one-two punch has left the Northern California circuit a little dizzy. But the choices were never very good. Bay Meadows Land Co., which owns Bay Meadows, was planning to scrap the track within the next two years to complete a redevelopment project of office space and high-density housing, while the Magna plans for Dixon were just that - plans.

There was also a fundamental difference in the way the two host communities were handled by the corporations involved. In San Mateo, Bay Meadows Land Co. bought the track and in short order replaced the old stable area with offices, shops, apartments, and condos. The barn area was moved to the claustrophobic infield.

The second phase of BMLC's development - involving the racetrack, grandstand, and remaining parking lot - required another round of approval by the local planning commission and city council. By November of 2005 this was accomplished. The approval immediately faced a challenge from a group called Friends of Bay Meadows, which circulated a petition calling for a voter referendum.

The petition was vigorously challenged in court by attorneys representing Bay Meadows Land, which has referred to the racetrack in press releases as "the area's largest under-developed site," as if that's a bad thing. A Superior Court judge ruled against the land company's assertions that the petition was faulty, but then later ruled in favor of the decision by the local board of elections to disqualify 1,000 of the petition signatures. As a result, the petition to put the Bay Meadows development to a public vote came up 136 signatures short.

In Dixon, Magna Entertainment got a 4-1 approval from the city council last October to build Dixon Downs. A petition drive was immediately launched in opposition to the council's decision, resulting in the April 17 special election. Magna weighed in with an estimated $500,000 pro-development election campaign featuring the tone-deaf slogan "Don't Let Dixon Down," while the the vastly outspent Dixon Citizens for Quality Growth were content with "Don't Gamble With Dixon's Future." Don't ask me who comes up with these, but "Don't Gamble" came out on top.

"I don't think it was a rejection of horse racing per se," said Mary Ann Courville, the mayor of Dixon, who voted in favor of the racetrack project. "In particular for our city, there was a real concern for the quality-of-life issues, such as traffic, gambling, drinking, and crime, and how it would affect our small little city. Was something this big what our city wanted to be identified with?"

There it is, racing fans. As racetrack companies sow, so shall they reap. Dixon allowed a Wal-Mart to be built, but a racetrack? Different story.

To the general public, horse racing has become inextricably linked to the world of casino gambling, as personified by the Las Vegas mega-casinos and Native American gambling emporiums. Magna's people could have promised on a stack of almanacs that no slot machine would ever darken the doorway of Dixon Downs (in fact, they did offer assurances in the form of covenants), but the majority of those who showed up to vote were not convinced. No self-respecting bedroom community in the middle of California farm country can be expected to welcome a casino in its midst, even one disguised as a handsome racetrack.

"In the course of the council's gathering of information, we got to go to Gulfstream Park, and I thought something like that would be a good fit here," Courville said. "We also visited the Palm Meadows training center, and it's absolutely gorgeous. So peaceful, so beautiful."

Both Gulfstream and Palm Meadows are Magna Entertainment properties.

"I think if people recognized truly what a racetrack is, there may have been more support," Courville added. "I thought the opportunity for a variety of new jobs was a plus, so I was comfortable saying yes to the racetrack. But more and more, a racetrack is not being seen as just a racetrack."

Someone in racing should listen to her honor the mayor. What she read into the Dixon vote may be hard to swallow, but it is brutally true. The sport has forfeited its own identity.